The day after Korea beat Japan for the second time in the inaugural World Baseball Classic (WBC) I wanted to find out why Korean fans were booing Ichiro, Japan’s star player. What did he do to warrant such overt hostility?
Thus, Ichiro vs. Korea was on my mind when I met with my English Conversation class on the morning of that day. I really wanted to know what had riled the fans.
I began the class with "What’s the big news?" a broad question aimed at the whole class as a way of warming up students for participation. "We beat Japan!" answered two confident students simultaneously. Then I asked, "What’s the problem between Ichiro and Koreans"? "His mouth," quipped another student. A native speaker couldn’t have been more succinct.
Now I knew that Ichiro had put his foot into his mouth, but no one could give me his exact words. After searching a number of newspapers, I found an article with his inflammatory words: "I want to beat South Korea so badly that South Korea won’t want to play Japan again for 30 years." Talk about waving a red flag before a Korean bull.
The WBC was of little interest to me until I caught the 6th inning of Korea vs. Japan II while playing with my TV’s remote control. That the USA had already lost to a bunch of Canadian minor leaguers only confirmed my belief that the Classic was contrived and not worth my time. But it was hard to ignore nothing-to-nothing in the 6th inning of a game between the Asian rivals.
Seeing the Koreans score two runs in the 8th inning andhold on for a 2-1 victory made me an instant fan of the Classic. Even the elimination of the USA by Mexico had a silver lining for me. It meant that there would be a Korea vs. Japan III, exciting me much more than Korea or Japan vs. USA.
Ichiro must have been counting his blessings. For here was one last chance at redemption after the Koreans had made him eat his words twice following his outrageous statement.
To have expected a third Korean victory in game III was expecting too much, though. If I were a betting man, I’d have put my money on the Japanese. They were due for a big game after losing the first two including one in Tokyo. Well, they did have that big game and then another one against Cuba to win the WBC, causing Ichiro to say, "This is probably the biggest moment in my baseball career."
Had Japan lost to Korea for a third time, who knows what Ichiro would have done? Perhaps he would have committed seppuku in right field.
Although I’d never seen Ichiro playuntil that 6th inning, his fame had preceded him. The Seattle Mariners All-Star is considered to be a consummate player, a samurai in a baseball uniform who plays with the intensity of a Pete Rose, who himself was idolized by the Japanese during his playing days with the Cincinnati Reds.
Right after the second loss, a TV camera focused on a seething Ichiro in Japan’s dugout. Aware of the prying camera, he turned away and barked something; probably the F-word, that Anglo-Saxon expletive that heprobably picked up in the Mariners’ locker room.
Meanwhile, there was Park Chung-ho and his teammates circling the field and basking in yet another victory over Japan before their ecstatic, flag-waving fans. Chung-ho was collared by an American TV person and asked for his assessment of the game. He responded emotionally in halting English before lapsing into "awesome," "awesome."
His "awesome" made me chuckle for when I hear my English Conversation students use the word, my first thought is, "You just got back from the USA."
Chung-ho was quite the sensation when he joined the L.A. Dodgers as a rookie, paving the way for other Koreans to join him in the major leagues and making the sky-blue L.A. baseball cap ubiquitous on the streets of Seoul. My last recollection of Chung-ho as a Dodger was a bench-clearing brawl that resulted in him being suspended for two games for "kicking." When I heard of his suspension while watching CNN’s "Sport Center," I yelled, "That wasn’t kicking; that was martial art."
There was much more to the WBC than Korea vs. Japan. Hispanics brought their volatilebrand of baseball to the Classic, and they came to play.
Baseball is their "beautiful game," bringing to it the same love and passion that Brazilians bring to soccer. Hispanic volatility was on display in the game between Puerto Rico and Panama, won by Puerto Rico inextra-innings, in which nine players were hit by pitches. And they are always in the middle of bench-clearing brawls in the major leagues, as well.
That 37 percent of major leaguers are Hispanic lends credence to their prominence in baseball. They just about own the second-base and shortstop positions and are routinelychosen for All-Star teams and win Golden Gloves.
Hispanics have filled a void left by African-Americans, who seem to have abandoned baseball for basketball. This is ironic given that the breaking of Baseball’s racist color line, by Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, was a historic event in the Civil Rights struggle. Demographics come into play here. Baseball has always been dominated by country boys, black and white, but with the migration of southern blacks to northern industrial cities following World War II they became enamored of basketball, the "city game."
Fortunately for the Classic, Cubans, arguably the best Hispanic players, were permitted to play after the cold-war concerns of the Bush administration were mollified. It would have been unconscionable for a professed baseball man like President Bush to have let rank politics intrude. Not inviting the Cubans would be the equivalent of not inviting Koreans to the World Taekwondo Classic.
Very surprisingly, the lure of fame and fortune awaiting players defecting from communist Cuba to the major leagues did not lead toany defections. But there is no telling what dark threats were leveled at the young players to guarantee their return to Cuba.
When a baseball fan in Havana was asked by a reporter about the specter of defection, he scoffed and said, "For every player that defects, we have three to take his position. Our pool of talent is very, very deep."
There is no bigger fan of baseball than Fidel Castro himself, who in his playing days caught the eye of a New York Giants’ scout. Had the Giants kicked in some bonus money for the young pitcher, maybe Fidel would have chosen baseball over revolution and there wouldn’t have been the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Cuba’s "lucky red uniforms" notwithstanding, Ichiro and teammates pounded the Cuban pitchers for ten runs to win the first WBC championship game 10-6. After the final out, there was Ichiro being tossed into the air by his jubilant teammates while Sadaharu Oh,team manager and Japan’s Homerun King, looked on. The Japanese were the best baseball players in the world on that day.
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